Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 2004-03-07 Reporter: Khadija Magardie

Laying Down the Law to Law Enforcers

 

Publication 

Sunday Times

Date 2004-03-07

Reporter

Khadija Magardie

Web Link

www.suntimes.co.za

 

It was the ancient Greek tragedians who crowned woman the eternal symbol of suffering. Today's media merely perfected it. Whether staring out in mute suffering from a television screen after being raped in Bosnia, or going off to her chamber to asphyxiate herself because her sons fell on the battlefields of Troy, woman is all there is to be said of victim-hood.

But Alix Jean Carmichele would be no such well for the playwright or editor's ink - despite being beaten, chopped up and nearly killed one otherwise ordinary winter's morning nine years ago in a tiny hamlet outside Knysna.

Were Carmichele a character from Greek mythology, she would be Sophocles' Antigone, who preferred death to a compromise with injustice.

In playwright Jean Anouihl's Antigone, the heroine's last words are a refusal to repent for her defiance of the king's order that she not bury her dead brother. "I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl."

Carmichele, too, refused to play the victim role. Instead, she became a headache that wouldn't go away for nearly 10 years, not for the man who attacked and nearly killed her, but for those she blamed most - the country's law enforcers who could have, and should have, prevented her brutal attack.

On March 16 2001 the Constitutional Court found that Carmichele had genuine legal grounds to use the lower courts to pursue a claim of damages from the police and the prosecution service on the grounds that they were negligent in keeping her attacker, a habitual offender with a disturbing history of violence against women, out of society and thus away from her.

This brought a measure of closure to a legal tussle nearly six years old.

Carmichele says her struggle was for acknowledgment - that the police and prosecution service had failed in their obligation to protect her from her attacker, Francois Coetzee.

She says he should never have been released on free bail - or at all - after he had been arrested in connection with the alleged rape and serious assault of a young woman.

Carmichele's battle has always made her feel alone - as alone as she was on August 6 1995 as she walked into the lounge of her friend's house, and straight into Coetzee's pickaxe.

Despite the horror, it was the first and only time she screamed. "It was a low, deep primal scream - almost like it wasn't coming out of my own body."

As the blows rained down, she remembers she was "completely lucid", even as she was kicked, slashed and had a steak knife thrust so deep into her chest that the blade broke off.

Her eyes were blinded by blood, but she managed to wipe them with a badly lacerated hand, only to stare into the eyes of a man she knew - a man she and her friend had repeatedly complained to the police about.

Weeks before the attack, Carmichele's friend Melanie Gosling had complained to local police and a senior prosecutor about the presence of a habitual offender with a violent past in their area.

She was told the authorities' hands were tied unless Coetzee, the son of Gosling's domestic worker, "committed another offence" - which he did.

Carmichele remembers how she felt when she looked into the eyes of Coetzee: "I wasn't surprised."

Carmichele is writing about her attack.

An oddity to some is that Carmichele appears so emotionless when she recounts the grimmest details of her attack. And when asked what her strongest emotion is when remembering her attack, it is not fear or panic or shock, but anger.

Carmichele has been a photographer for 17 years, her shutter capturing the joys, milestones and sorrows of others.

But since her case, the lens has reversed, making her the photographed and quoted subject.

Despite what she calls "the initial bravado", she is an introvert who doesn't make friends easily and is jealous of her privacy.

She calls herself " Bridget Jones" in the love-life stakes, and lives on her parents' farm.

It's hardly the image of the lone crusader the press have come to know, the woman who tirelessly fought to get the courts to acknowledge that the law enforcers were as guilty of failing to protect her from attack as Coetzee was for attacking her.

Today Coetzee is behind bars and after five separate hearings of Carmichele's case, the courts have finally agreed she should be compensated for the negligence of those who should have kept Coet zee out of society.

The many cases she has fought over the issue have taught Carmichele patience and "to never to expect too much". The first time she walked into a courtroom, she was "fired up". Now she is more circumspect.

Her court victory, she sometimes cannot help but feel, was short-lived, that it will still be a long time before she can finally say she has won.

The other day someone asked her how she felt about the Constitutional Court. She thought of answering with a worn-out platitude about how the court protects the weak and needy.

But she admits: "I questioned the need for such a court in the first place, in the deep and dark Third World.

"I was wrong."

With acknowledgements to Khadija Magardie and the Sunday Times.